The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything. New Jersey in the 1930s. Unhappily married Depression-era waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) earns the money while her inattentive husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), blows their measly income on getting drunk and gambling. To deal with her loneliness, Cecilia escapes to the cinema and becomes transfixed with the RKO movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and especially its lead character, archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). When Tom notices this is her fifth time to see it he literally steps out of the black and white screen and into her life in full colour.  Both of their realities are thrown into chaos as he is confused by his actor’s identity of Gil Shepherd and the character he plays onscreen where he is indulged by Manhattan high society. Cecilia has to choose between Tom and Gil. Then the film’s producers discover that other Tom Baxters are attempting to leave the screen in other movie theatres ... You make love without fading out? Perfectly capturing the fantasy life of a moviegoer at the height of Thirties Hollywood, Allen blends Depression-era realism with the escape valve of Deco cinema against the backdrop of marital discord and domestic violence. The real ones want their lives fiction and the fictional ones want their lives real. The performances are pitch-perfect and the tone admirably sustained, Farrow enormously touching in capturing the bittersweet situation of a woman caught between what she has and what she wants:  When you kissed me, I felt like my heart faded out. I closed my eyes, and I was in some private place. In a role originally played by Michael Keaton until he and Allen agreed it wasn’t working ten days into production, Daniels has an existential crisis at the centre of his performance:  I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary. The conceit is brilliant and it’s intelligently played out in one of Allen’s best screenplays with the film within the film wonderfully imagined and Gil’s belief that he created the character of Tom is an arrow across the parapet for screenwriters. I don’t wanna talk any more about what’s real and what’s illusion. Life’s too short to spend time thinking about life. Let’s just live it! Shot in shades of wistfulness and regret by Gordon Willis, this remains a classic interrogation of cinema’s power. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us

Danny Aiello 20th June 1933 – 12th December 2019

I was forty when I did my first movie. You’ll know Danny Aiello:  from his deadly line in The Godfather Part II: Michael Corleone says Hello!  to playing Madonna’s dad in the music video Papa Don’t Preach, you know him. From his dazzling start in Bang the Drum Slowly to his police chief namesake in Once Upon a Time in America to Mia Farrow’s husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo or Sal the pizzeria owner in Do The Right Thing, the titular character Ruby, or formerly successful film director Harry Stone in The Pickle, any time you see him you know this is going to be one hell of a good movie. What a legacy he leaves.  The hapless Romeo Johnny Cammereri in Moonstruck, Chester Grant in The Closer, Tommy Five-Tone in Hudson Hawk, Aiello seems as much at home in crazed comedy as serious drama. Sometimes he was a leading man in TV series, lots of times he supported short filmmakers and it’s ironic that his last completed work is Vinnie Favale and Patrick Kendall’s fantasy Hereafter Musical. He liked to sing and recorded and toured for the past two decades. He was probably Vincent Gardenia’s lucky charm because each time they appeared together Gardenia netted an Academy Award nomination. He wasn’t just good, he made everyone around him better. He took to acting late and had spent years working as a Greyhound Bus baggage handler and union rep. He got his start after he landed the role of emcee at The Improvisation comedy club where he’d been working nights as a bouncer. He was a great supporter of charities, donating to everything from AIDS to disabled children. He was a hell of an actor and lit up every role he took on, embodying the term class act. The auteurs certainly knew it but now he is gone. We have the films. Rest in peace.

Hudson Hawk (1990)

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I’m being blackmailed into robbing a bank by a psychotic American corporation and the CIA. Thief extraordinaire Hudson Hawk (Bruce Willis) has just been released from prison and all he wants is a nice cappuccino which his partner in crime Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello) is happy to provide en route to their co-owned bar which has been yuppified beyond recognition. However, before he can enjoy his favorite beverage, the highly eccentric and wealthy Darwin Mayflower (Richard E. Grant) and his equally odd wife, Minerva (Sandra Bernhard), rope Hawk into an ambitious series of heists involving the local Mafia, the Mario Brothers. Into the fray enters CIA honcho George Kaplan (James Coburn) and before he knows it, Hawk is transported to Rome where he encounters the beautiful Anna Baragli (Andie McDowell) at an art auction.  Soon Hawk is stealing major works by Leonardo Da Vinci, priceless pieces that the Mayflowers plan to use in an exceedingly nefarious way but behind the conspiracy is there another conspiracy?You cease to amaze me, convict.  You are a terrible cat burglar. What one character calls glib repartee is what sustains this breezy exercise in the ridiculous, or what might have been called a vanity project for Willis, who devised the story. It’s a daft, beautifully shot (grazie a Dante Spinotti!) heist caper, with the wisecracking smart aleck Willis repeatedly conned into stealing great works of art. At the conclusion da Vinci’s theory that man would fly is proven. McDowell is cute as the undercover nun, the charismatic Coburn does a witty nostalgic twist on his Our Man Flint character and Grant and Bernhard are reliably ridiculous as the insanely villainous Mayflower Industries husband and wife team. Taken the right way, as a comic book (and part-musical with Willis and Aiello warbling big tunes during their artful burglaries) you won’t worry too much about logic. I have fond memories of it because back in the day, when director Michael Lehmann was a name (Heathers! Meet the Applegates!) I won all of his work on VHS from either Empire or Q. Sigh. The Nineties. Truly another (better) time. Written by Stephen E. de Souza and Daniel (Heathers) Waters.  I’ll torture you so slowly you’ll think it’s a career